Looking beyond business to address the issue of food insecurity

by Keith Nunes
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The period between the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday and New Year’s Day is often referred to as the "season of giving." In addition to reaching out to family and friends, an emphasis by both consumers as well as public and private entities is placed on helping those who are less fortunate. It is not often this magazine looks beyond the business issues that directly affect the food industry, but as this holiday season comes to an end it is important for food manufacturers to remember those in need and consider what each ought to do to alleviate the worsening local and global problem of food insecurity.

Due to overuse, certain phrases have a way of gaining traction in the media and end up making the transition from being an insightful comment to a cliché without meaning. Past examples include "paradigm shift" and "a perfect storm." More recently the list has come to include "uncharted territory" and "falling through the cracks." While the first three phrases assess broad business and economic conditions, the latter focuses on people who, for the first time, require assistance to meet the basic needs of survival.

The population of U.S. consumers facing food insecurity and requiring public or private assistance is growing. A report issued by the Food Bank of New York City shows that over the past five years the number of New York City residents having difficulty affording food has grown to nearly 4 million, doubling from approximately 2 million in 2003. Approximately 3.5 million New Yorkers are concerned about needing food assistance through soup kitchens, food pantries or food stamps during the next 12 months. Of the 3.5 million contemplating assistance, 2.1 million say they have never used it before.

A survey released in November and commissioned by Kraft Foods Inc. found a high rate of food insecurity across diverse economic brackets. Nearly half of 1,000 people surveyed said economic changes threatened their ability to provide their families with balanced, nutritious meals. Almost 45% said changes in their economic situation threatened their ability to provide enough food for their families.

Notable efforts in the United States are under way by public agencies and companies such as Kraft. This company as well as numerous other companies work directly with the food bank Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest) in an effort to provide food to people needing assistance. Smaller companies also are making important contributions to local food banks.

Kraft has used its resources individually and in partnership with others to create unique hunger relief programs. In November, the company, in partnership with Feeding America, introduced a mobile pantry program that will deliver an estimated 50 million meals during the next three years. The effort will feature 25 vehicles that will be able to extend Feeding America’s reach into communities that are currently underserved by food banks and other emergency assistance programs. The effort is obviously needed in view of the number of people facing food insecurity for the first time.

Beyond the borders of North America food insecurity remains an ongoing crisis. This year alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates an additional 40 million people face hunger primarily due to higher food prices. The agency now estimates there are 963 million undernourished people in the world.

The problem of food insecurity is complex and the responsibility for addressing the crisis must be shared by both public and private entities. Within this coalition, food manufacturers have a special place. Whether executives choose to participate on a local, national or international level makes no difference. The goal must be to participate and become engaged in addressing the crisis on a year-round basis.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 23, 2008, starting on Page 7. Click here to search that archive.

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